Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail (last day)



Japanese breakfast at Minshuku Momofuku in Koguchi


After having a big Japanese breakfast at Minshuku Momofuku, I was ready for my last hike of the pilgrimage trail. Mr Nakazawa warned me about the first stretch of the hike, which requires a steep climb of 800 metres in elevation over 5km. This section of the trail is called Dogirizaka meaning ‘body breaking slope’. Mr Nakazawa smiled and told me that he had done it a few times, as shown in the photos on his wall.


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The most challenging section of the trail is Dogirizaka. The famous poet Fujiwara Teika (1162-1241) stated in his pilgrimage diary from 1201 that, “This route is very rough and difficult; it is impossible to describe precisely how tough it is”.


Out of all the days, the last day was the day when I encountered the most hikers. Oddly, the supposedly most difficult section seemed to attract more hikers than the rest. Early in the morning, I saw a couple having an argument while hiking up the woods; the husband stormed off (carrying nothing), and his wife (who was carrying a handbag) had to chase after him! It was a bizarre scene. Not long after that, I ran into the couple from San Francisco again and we decided to hike together. We all felt that carrying our own rucksacks while walking the pilgrimage trail was important to us… it would have been much easier to have our rucksacks forwarded to the next destination, but it would completely miss the point and notion of the pilgrimage.

We learned that the Dogirizaka section is tough because the rock staircases appear to be endless, and at times very steep and slippery. Since I have previously suffered from a knee injury, my poles helped me enormously throughout this trail.


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Finally, we survived the toughest section and reached the Echizen-toge pass. Yet it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing from then on, because there were still several descends and climbs from one mountain to another. However, we all felt that having companions made the journey easier… mostly because we were having some interesting conversations and were distracted from the walking.

At the Jizo-jaya teahouse remains, we met another group of hikers and had lunch here altogether. Since our water supply was low, we were thrilled to see a vending machine here. Normally, vending machines are conspicuous in Japan, but on this trail, they are rare and are considered as precious commodities. Like the one I saw yesterday, the one at the teahouse remains had ran out of water as well, so we had to opt for other drinks. After lunch, we carried on with the awareness that we were at the last stretch of the trail.




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Nachi Kogen Park
A pleasant surprise awaited us at the vast and picturesque Nachi Kogen Park, which at the time was full of cherry trees! We saw an ultra long slide and got very excited. We decided to try and slide down, but it was very difficult with the old rollers and ended up using our hands to move down the slide. Luckily, the view from the top of the slide was stunning because of the cherry trees and mountain backdrop, so it made up for the slow motion down the slide. Two Japanese guys saw us struggling and gave a cardboard to my American companion behind me. Thus, he was sliding down very quickly while I was struggling in front of him and worrying that he was going to crash into me… We all had a laugh in the end, especially because it was all quite unexpected, and not long before we reached our destination.




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Nachi-no-Otaki and Kumano Nachi Taisha Grand Shrine


When we finally got a glimpse of the Nachi-no-Otaki waterfall while descending from Mount Nachi, and we were all over the moon. Yet the first thing we did when we arrived at the Kumano Nachi Taisha Grand Shrine was to rush into a shop with an ice-cream sign outside! We felt that we deserved some reward for the hard work, and the delicious plum ice cream did the trick for us.

After our treat, we walked around the Shinto Nachi Taisha Shrine and the Buddhist Seiganto-ji Temple (the two structures used to be connected but were separated in the Meiji era). The temple is reputed to be the oldest structure in Kumano and said to have been founded in the fourth century by an Indian monk who also founded the Fudarakusan Temple .

The location was the Grand shrine offers a fantastic view of Japan’s tallest waterfall, Nachi-no-Otaki (133 meters high and 13 meters wide), which has long been a site of religious significance in Japan. The worship of the nature and kami (meaning superior to the human condition) is at the heart of Shintoism, hence the waterfall became a place of worship or pilgrimage site.

It felt odd to see tourists roaming around at this site, since I barely saw more than 20 people over the last few days. I spent more time with trees than humans during my pilgrimage trail, and despite the challenges, I found the experience extremely meditative and gratifying. Being able to walk the ancient trails where pilgrims have passed through for over a thousand years was a privilege, and I would never forget this amazing journey.


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After wandering around the site of the Shrine, it was time for the American couple and I to say goodbye. We exchanged contacts and then parted our ways. My journey would have been quite different without them, and I was glad that we were able to complete the trail together.






I waited for the last bus that headed towards Nachi-Katsuura, a fishing port where I spent my last night before leaving the region by train. Nachi-Katsuura has the highest catch of tuna in Japan, and its morning tuna market is a local attraction. It is also known for its onsens, and I splashed out on my last night of the trail at Manseiro Ryokan, located right across from the pier.






The seafoof banquet at Manseiro Ryokan


The building of the ryokan is rather old and the decor is modest and dated, but the highlight here is its meals. After three days of hiking, I think the spectacular kaiseki-style seafood dinner was a great way to end my journey. The star of the meal was of course, tuna, and apart from eating it raw, it was also served as sukiyaki (usually beef is used). The food just kept coming, even the waiter was laughing because I looked stunned whenever he brought more dishes over.




After the never-ending meal, I rested a little before taking the free ferry (10 mins ride) across to the neighboring Hotel Urashima, where it is famous for its Bokido onsen cave bath overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Hotel Urashima is a massive and touristy resort with numerous souvenir shops, karaoke bars, and game centers, and I was quite shocked when I arrived in my onsen yukata. Nonetheless, I managed to find my way in the labyrinth of hallways with colour coded lines on the floor.

Unlike the chaotic lobby and hallways, the natural hot spring bath in a cave by the ocean is very tranquil. Not only you can hear the waves beating against the rocks, you can also feel the sea breeze and look up at the moon and stars while soaking in a hot spring bath. It was a truly unforgettable experience, and I absolutely loved it. Even though all my aches was melting away, I was also feeling exhausted from my 8-hour hike, so I didn’t stay that long in the cave. All I could think of was ‘bed’ after the soak.



Another big breakfast…


Public foot onsen



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After another big but healthy Japanese breakfast the next morning, I ventured over to the tuna market. Although I had missed the early morning auction (I was in need of sleep), I was still curious to see where most of the tuna in Japan originated from. Luckily, there was still some actions to be seen… and I managed to take some photos from the observation deck of auction’s aftermath.

After a short stroll around the quiet town, I bought a fish bento and some seafood snacks for my train ride to kyoto. My five-day journey in the Wakayama region had been sublime and extraordinary, and what struck me most was the largely unspoilt nature along the Kumano Kodo trail. This part of my trip revealed the beauty of Japan that is usually depicted in nature-related documentaries, and I am sure my Shinrin-yoku/forest bathing time was beneficial to my physical and mental health.



The view from the train


Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail (Day 1)



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After a restful night at the lovely Happiness Chikatsuyu, I was feeling mentally prepared for my pilgrimage walk. According to the map, the distance from Chikatusuyu to Hongu Taisha-mae is about 25 km/15.5 miles with an elevation of 650 meters at the highest point of the route. On paper, it doesn’t sound too difficult, but in fact, my first day turned out to be the most challenging day of the entire trail. This was partly due to the exceptionally warm weather. It was the last day of March, and I had brought along my fleece, waterproofs, hat, scarf, etc.; what I did not expect was sunny blue sky with temperature reaching up to 25/6 degrees, and I ended up sweating throughout the day.

I walked to the village around 8 to have breakfast at the same cafe that delivered my dinner the previous night, and I had to order a takeaway bento as there are no other food/ convenient stores nearby to buy my lunch. My plan was to take the 9am bus that would take me up the hill to save some energy, however, after waiting for about 15 minutes, the bus still hadn’t arrived (in fact, it never it), hence I decided not to waste more time and started walking.


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Bottom right: Nonaka-no-Shimizu Spring is one of the 100 famous waters of Japan


Hiking over 200 meters in elevation up to Mt. Takao was arduous because the sun was right on top of me. It was not even 11am yet, and my back was soaked because of the rucksack. Even though I am an avid and experienced walker, the heat was making me slight wary about the rest of the day.




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I walked past Nonaka where there are a row of minshukus (family-run bed and breakfasts) that overlook the mountains nearby. Since the accommodations along the trail are limited, it is best to book in advanced esp. during the high seasons.






I tried not to stop much and kept at a constant pace, but it got much tougher during the 4 km detour due to a typhoon damage in 2011. This section includes a steep hike over the Iwagami-toge pass (650 meters elevation), then descends to the Jagata Jizo. My foldable walking poles worked wonders during the descend, and I was glad that I bought them for this hike. Nonetheless, I had to stop and rest occasionally during the uphill section, and I felt as if my rucksack was getting heavier as I hiked upwards.


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After passing through Yukawa-oji, there is another steep climb upwards towards Mikoshi-toge Pass, where there is a rest area with toilets. By the time I reached Mikoshi-toge Pass, it was already 2:30pm, and I was feeling hot, tired, and starving. Here, I ran into the Japanese couple i met earlier in the day, and they were having their break and lunch as well. My simple bento consisted of three Onigiri, some fish sticks and a section of a banana. I could have eaten more, but at least the rice was quite filling, which was what I needed.



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Funatama Shrine and Inohana Oji


After the break, I continued on and there was more descend through an unpaved woodland path. Eventually when I left the woodland, there was a flat section (usually the flat part doesn’t last long) where some lovely cherry trees were starting to blossom.

Not long after, I walked past the Funatama Shrine which enshrines the god of ships dating back to the Edo period (1603-1867). And further down from the Shrine is Inohana Oji; in kanji, the term ‘Inohana’ means a pig’s nose, and apparently, it originated from the topography of the area which is supposed to resemble a wild boar’s nose. Hmm…

Throughout the trail, there are stamps available at various spots where hikers could stamp onto their stamp book. I did not managed to pick up a stamp book at Kii-Tanabe, so I stamped onto my free map, which probably wasn’t ideal. Yet seeing a new stamp on each page did provide me with a slight sense of progress and a bit of excitement.






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Hosshinmon oji


By around 4pm (after hiking for seven hours), I finally arrived at Hosshinmon oji, one of the most important sites on the trail. It is known as the “gate of awakening of the aspiration to enlightenment”, and passing through the gate is a transformational rite marking the initiatory death and rebirth in the Pure Land paradise.

From here, I still had about three more hours to walk until I reach the destination, Hongu Taisha-mae. I saw a warning sign reminding hikers that the sun would set around 6pm, and so I decided to walk towards the bus stop to try and catch the next bus. At the bus stop, I saw the Japanese couple from earlier and we waited patiently for some time, but the bus didn’t show up (again!). It was only later that we found out the bus at 4:30pm only runs in spring/ summer, and we had already missed the last bus, which was at 2:30pm! Luckily, they managed to call a taxi (apparently, it is the only one in the area) to pick us up from the bus stop…





During the taxi ride, I found out that the couple was from Tokyo and it was also their first hike at Kumano Kodo. They found the trail more challenging than they had anticipated, and decided not to continue on.

After about 20-30 minutes’ ride through the mountains, I finally arrived at my destination: Pension Ashitanomori, a Western-style guest house at Kawayu Onsen. The couple and I split the taxi fare and they carried on towards Wataze Onsen, another onsen district nearby.



Kawayu Onsen


There are three onsen districts in Hongu, and I chose to stay in the historic Kawayu Onsen because of the Oto River and its natural hot spring. There are a row of lodgings along the river, and apart from the pre-dug hot springs at the gravel river bed, guests can also dig their own onsen if they wish to do so.





Pension Ashitanomori at Kawayu Onsen


I felt a sense of relief after arriving at the pension. Although I didn’t complete the route today, I was grateful that I managed to get a ride to the lodging before sunset. Hiking alone in the dark through the woodland would have been too dangerous, and it was not a risk worth taking. The trail was undoubtedly more strenuous than I had expected, and according to my iphone, I had walked over 37000 steps in a day! Rather than feeling regretful, I felt like I had achieved something remarkable, and I rewarded myself by soaking in the private indoor onsen, followed by a visit to the outdoor onsen after dinner (wearing clothing provided by the hotel because I didn’t have any swimming costume). This was probably the best onsen experience I have ever had because not only I was there alone, it was also full moon and the sky was very clear. I could feel the aches and pains from the day melting away as I was soaking in the hot spring while gazing at the stars and moon. It was pure bliss, and I couldn’t have been happier after a long day’s hike.


Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail (Day 2)





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Kumano Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine


Since I missed the Kumano Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine yesterday, I decided to visit the shrine before starting my walk today as it is one of the most three important shrines on the pilgrimage route, as well as the head shrine of over 3,000 Kumano shrines across Japan.

Originally located at Oyunohara, a sandbank at the confluence of the Kumano and Otonashi Rivers, a severe flood destroyed many of the shrine buildings in 1889. The salvaged remains of three pavilions (out of five) were rebuilt at their present site. The entrance to Oyunohara is marked by the largest Torii shrine gate in the world (33.9 meters tall and 42 meters wide). It is a formalized gateway that designates the entrance to a sacred area, and signifies the division of the secular and the spiritual worlds.

After a brief visit, I took the bus to Ukegawa where the second day of the journey began.


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Unlike the day before the route from Ukegawa to Koguchi is shorter and less strenuous, and the distance is about 13km. After a hike up Mt. Nyohozan, there is a rewarding panoramic view of the 3600 peaks in Kumano at the impressive Hyakken-gura look out.




Hyakken-gura look out


Here, I bumped into a couple I met continuously since yesterday and we started chatting for the first time. I found out that they were from San Francisco, and they had flown over for a week just to do this trail. Interestingly, we all thought the previous day’s hike was extremely challenging; they also couldn’t complete it on time and ended up getting a lift from a French couple. Since we were all heading towards Koguchi, I ended up running into them throughout the day at various spots.




A solar-powered toilet


It was another clear and rather hot day, but the trail was gentler with less steep climbs and descends, and so I was able to take a more relaxing pace today.



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Sainokawara Jizo


When traveling in rural Japan, I would often come across a carved stone statue of a person wearing a red apron/bib. The couple from the US and I were curious and wanted to know more because they are conspicuous along the pilgrimage route.

It turns out that this is the statue of Jizo Bosatsu (or Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva in Sanskrit), also known as the earth bearer, and he is full of awesomeness, compassion and fortitude. He is the protector of travelers and children, which explains his presence along the route. Jizo also takes care of the souls of unborn children and those who die at a young age. Red bibs were said to have been worn by children in earlier times, hence Jizo is often seen wearing a red bib.



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Ishido-jaya Teahouse Remains and my special pre-ordered bento


Aside from the statue of Jizo, teahouse remains are common sights along the pilgrimage route. When the trail was in its heyday, there were abundant teahouses providing tea and resting places (some even offered lodgings) for pilgrims.

At the Ishido-jaya Teahouse Remains, I was looking forward to the special bento that I had pre-ordered online. After reading all the rave reviews, I splashed out and paid 1150 yen (just under £8) for this beautifully arranged and packaged bento. And it didn’t disappoint – it tasted as good as it looked. (N.B. the bentos I had yesterday was only 300 yen, so 1150 yen is considerably higher than the average).



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Arriving at Koguchi… Bottom: Koguchi Shizen-no-Ie, a hostel/campsite converted from an old school


For some time, I had read news and accounts on the issue of depopulation in rural Japan, but it didn’t hit me until I came to this region. After spending one night at the sleepy Chikatsuyu, I spent another night at the even ‘sleepier’ Koguchi, where there are only two lodgings available for hikers. One of them is a hostel converted from an old school that offers 11 rooms, and the other one is Minshuku Momofuku, a small guesthouse with two rooms.



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Like Chikatsuyu, I didn’t see a soul as I walked through the slightly eerie village. I came across a average-sized shop, so I went in… it seems to be the only shop in the village which sells food (mostly dry or frozen), drinks, clothing and accessories, stationery, hardware, etc. It is like a convenient store that is stuck in a time warp.





Minshuku Momofuku


I arrived at Minshuku Momofuku at around four, and was greeted by Mr. Nakazawa, who speaks sufficient English to communicate. I was told that I was the only guest at their house, so I got to enjoy the place to myself. I was quite blown away by the amount of food at dinner – it was the best dinner I have had since Saizen-in at Koyasan. Apparently, the most challenging hike was yet to come, so I felt justified to indulge before the hardship began.


From Koyasan to Kumano Kodo

When I was planning my Japan trip, I came across an article about the ancient pilgrimage trail, Kumano Kodo, in the Wakayama region. Despite numerous visits to Japan over the years, I have never heard of this trail before. I became interested and started researching about the trail. Unlike the famous pilgramge route, Camino de Santiago in Spain, Kumano Kodo comprises several routes and walkers can be flexible with the days and distances. The most popular route is the Nakahechi route which starts from Kii-Tanabe on the western coast of the Kii Peninsula and traverses east into the mountains towards the other side of the Peninsula. Since the 10th century, the Nakahechi route had been extensively used by the imperial family on pilgrimage from Kyoto. Since this was my first multi-day trail, I thought I should stick with the more popular route.


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Although there are some sample itineraries on the official Kumano Kodo tourism website, I decided to make some alterations; meanwhile, I still used their free reservation services for accommodations and bento boxes. Instead of using the rather pricey daily luggage transfer service, I forwarded my luggage in Osaka to my next desination after the pilgrimage trail.

Before my trip, I bought a pair of foldable walking sticks and a foldable rucksack big enough to carry essentials and clothing for 5 nights. Like the protagonist in the film ‘Wild’, I was constantly packing and repacking to make sure that I wasn’t carrying too much. Yet later I acknowledge that I had still taken too much unnecessary stuff, like a book that I never got to read (too exhausted), accessories such as scarf and hat (too warm), and a heavy camera… minimalising is never as easy as we think.




Due to the traveling period (low season), the route from Koyasan to Kii-Tanabe (the beginning of the trail) was a not a straight-forward one despite that they are not that far apart by distance. I ended up taking 3 buses and 2 trains, which took over 6 hours of traveling time! Luckily, the stunning scenery along the coast made the journey more interesting.

When I arrived at Kii-Tanabe, I had to rush over to the Tourist office to get a copy of the route maps as I would have to depend on it a lot over the next few days. Since I spent almost 1/2 day traveling, it meant that I didn’t have time to walk to my destination, hence I took a bus and headed to my lodging at Chikatsuyu village.



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The starting point of the trail: Kii-Tanabe


My original plan was to stay in Takahara village, a ridge-top village that offers a panoramic view of the mountains in the surrounding area, but all the lodgings there were full when I tried to book, so I had to skip the first part of the trail and start from Chikatsuyu village. With only a few choices in the village, I decided to rent a cottage owned by a lovely Ms. Muya (according to the official reservation website) who named the cottage: Happiness Chikatsuyu.





Chikatsuyu village


Not only I was the only person who got off the bus at Chikatsuyu, I did not encounter anyone during my 15 minutes’ walk towards the cottage. I went to pick up the keys from the neighbour and he kindly showed me around the cottage and suggested that I take a bus up the hill tomorrow and start the trail at the top of the hill.


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The cottage is way better than the photos on the website. In fact, I understood immediately why it has been named ‘Happiness’. Honestly, I could feel the love and positive energy at this cottage. The spacious and bright cottage is not over-furnished, and has three exquisite kimonos hanging around the house. Yet more ‘happiness’ could be found outside in the garden.





The cottage is located on the top of a hillock overlooking the Hiki-gawa River. I felt incredibly blissful sitting inside the gazebo surrounded by the beautiful and tranquil environment.

Since there are no restaurants nearby, I had to pre-order dinner, which was delivered by a friendly lady who runs a small cafe in the village. It was a simple bento dinner, but enjoyable nonetheless especially because I was able to savour it in the garden.



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After dinner (which was only around 7pm), I decided to stroll into the village to see if there is a grocery shop or convenient store for my lunch tomorrow. Again, I did not see anyone along the route, nor did I see any food shop nor convenient store. There is a derelict petrol station and surprisingly, a wonderful bric-a-brac shop that sells vintage items and ceramics. I went into the shop but again, I didn’t see anyone… suddenly, I felt like I was in a surreal film where everyone in the village has vanished! Where is everyone?








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Although I have read a lot about the issues of urbanisation and rural depopulation in Japan, I have never seen it in real life until this trip. Chikatsuyu is only one of many. Walking back, I felt a bit sad that people would rather live in congested, polluted, expensive and high density concrete jungles than villages surrounded by natural beauty. And yet Japan is not alone – this is happening all over the world.

After I got back, I had to prepare for the big day ahead and was slightly anxious because the first day would be the longest day out of the three, with approx. 8 hours of walking time. I would need to reach my destination before sunset, but I could save some time and energy by taking a bus up the hill from the village in the morning.

I thought I had planned everything quite well, but as we all know, life rarely turns out the way we plan it…